Scintillating soccer, technical, tactical, and attack-oriented, played by young men starting for some of the biggest and best clubs in the world: This is what we have to look forward to. This is the future of the United States men’s national team, in 2016 and beyond. But first, we need to get through the 2014 World Cup.
It’s possible to divide the post-1989 history of the USMNT into three, roughly eight-year eras.
The first began in 1990, when the Americans returned to the world stage after a 40-year absence. Paul Caligiuri’s Shot Heard Round the World got the USMNT into the World Cup for the first time since 1950. Four years later, when the United States played host, a wider audience got a close look at Tab Ramos’s talent, Eric Wynalda’s scoring prowess, and Alexi Lalas’s hair, and fell in love with the Denim Kits. This era came to an end right around the time coach Steve Sampson left John Harkes (a.k.a. “Captain America”) off the 1998 World Cup roster, opted for a 3-6-1 formation in the tournament, and watched his squad lose convincingly to Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia in France.
The 2002 World Cup squad marked the beginning of the second era. Bruce Arena’s gang, the most successful side in modern American soccer, featured a mix of experience and youth, including veterans like goalkeeper Brad Friedel, midfield engine Claudio Reyna, and high-scoring forward Brian McBride, as well as a pair of electric 20-year-olds named Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley who were tearing up Major League Soccer at the time. Retired American player Frankie Hejduk recently told me it was the fittest team he’s ever been a part of, which is saying something considering the former defender values fitness as much as he does the perfect right-hand break.
Four years later, the team Arena brought to Germany featured the same DNA as the ’02 squad — eight players who started the first game of the ’06 World Cup appeared on the ’02 roster — but the results were dramatically different. The second era came to a close at the moment Reyna sprained his medial collateral ligament while being stripped by Ghana’s Haminu Draman, who promptly scored on Kasey Keller, more or less bouncing the Americans from the 2006 World Cup.
Bob Bradley’s accession to national team manager in December of that year — which came after a very public, and very failed, flirtation with former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann — marked the beginning of the current, third era. Nothing better represents it than a YouTube video showing reactions to Donovan’s goal in the 91st minute against Algeria in the third match of the 2010 World Cup.
As it was in 2010 is as it is now, with Donovan, along with Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Tim Howard, leading the way. The periphery changes — four years is a long time in life, and an even longer time in international soccer — but those men are the core of the team. For three of those players, Brazil represents a last chance. Another era of American soccer is nearing its inevitable conclusion. The national team will look dramatically different by the time we get to Russia in June 2018, as the most talented generation in U.S. soccer history comes of age. We’re sitting on the precipice of the fourth era, one that will last longer than eight years. The future of the United States men’s national team, one in which the Americans consistently compete for at least a semifinal appearance in every World Cup, draws near. But as a result, this summer might get a little dicey.
Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t hired for the 2014 World Cup. If that had been the case, he wouldn’t have been given a new contract through 2018, one that awards him near unilateral power to shape the American soccer program as he sees fit.
United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati hired the former German national team and Bayern Munich boss not just to coach, but to be the chief visionary. He was brought in to repeat the trick he pulled off with Germany before the 2006 World Cup. With the help of assistant Jogi Low, he refreshed Die Mannschaft with an eye toward producing exciting, attacking, technical soccer, fueled by the recruitment of players like Lukas Podolski, who were born outside Germany but could wear the country’s colors. Klinsmann also developed a more linear youth-to–senior team pipeline that saw the age-group teams play in the same style as the men’s national team. He achieved success by leaning on his impeccable credentials as a player (he is a World Cup and European Championship winner) and the force of his personality.
Gulati may have pursued Klinsmann for years, but once he hired him, in the late summer of 2011, he sought to tamp down expectations. “People are going to expect you to walk across the East River,” Gulati said to the new manager before his introductory press conference. But the head of U.S. Soccer knew the reality: “That was never going to be the case. We weren’t going to play like Spain the next morning. We don’t have the players to play like Spain.”
Klinsmann didn’t walk on water, and the USMNT did not look like Spain. But after a bumpy beginning, he has steadily improved a lot about the U.S. system. Working within the realities of the current team’s skill level, he has led the USMNT to a 26-7-10 record in 43 games. He has brought in more than his share of dual nationals, following through on the groundwork of his predecessors. Bradley recruited Jermaine Jones, and former U20 manager Thomas Rongen authored a famous list of 300 dual nationals whom the USSF could pursue. But Klinsmann has the playing résumé and star power they lacked. To wit, he added the title of technical director when he re-upped in December, and has been given a larger budget, more scouting resources, and pretty much anything else he has asked for. This has led to the creation of the U21 team, which serves as a bridge between the U20s and the Olympic squad.
The 2016 Olympic team — essentially an Under-23 squad with three overage players — will almost certainly be the best squad the Americans have ever brought to the tournament. It will feature current MLS starters like Columbus’s Wil Trapp and FC Dallas’s Kellyn Acosta, along with Seattle’s DeAndre Yedlin and Real Salt Lake’s Luis Gil, who have already earned caps for the senior team. Filling out the squad are Southhampton goalkeeper Cody Cropper, Hertha Berlin defender John Brooks, Tijuana’s Paul Arriola, Birmingham City’s Will Packwood, Freiburg’s Caleb Stanko, and 18-year-old U20 standout Rubio Rubin.
Then there’s Julian Green, who in all likelihood will have already been to one World Cup. He could possibly be joined by the next big Arsenal thing, Gedion Zelalem, who is eligible for an American passport. Sure, 10 years ago we were drooling over the likes of Mike Magee and Drew Moor. But that’s still a lot of potential heading into the Rio Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. And the pipeline for future talent widens with each passing year.
Here’s another way to look at the potential turnover four years from now: Of the 23 players likely to make the roster in Brazil, how many would you confidently predict will also go to Russia? I’d say five: Brad Guzan, Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Aron Johannsson. (You could talk me into Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Green, but I wouldn’t bet on any of those as a certainty.)
By comparison, since 2002, no fewer than eight players from the previous USMNT World Cup roster have appeared on the subsequent one. The fact that so much could be in flux four years from now, and that Klinsmann seems to have one eye on Russia, even as he prepares for Brazil (hence Green’s inclusion on the 2014 World Cup roster), isn’t an indictment of the current talent. It’s a testament to how quickly the current landscape of American soccer is changing.
Despite all the exciting names on the horizon, the U.S. team that goes to Brazil will feel more like the end of something than the beginning. Landon Donovan has been the face of American soccer for more than a decade, which is perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of his remarkable career. Assuming he makes the roster, this will almost certainly be his last World Cup, along with current captain Dempsey, Beasley, and Howard. When it’s over, those four will have more than 500 caps between them, with Donovan likely passing Cobi Jones for the all-time record. That’s a huge amount of institutional memory walking out the door, as well as the backbone of the defense and the attack for two World Cup cycles.
There are, of course, at least three games to play in Brazil before this group fades away. Advancing from a brutal Group G would be among the most impressive achievements in U.S. soccer history, the perfect finale to the end of this era.
If it’s going to happen, the man who best bridges the gap between the third era and the coming fourth will lead them there.
On the field and off, Michael Bradley is the fulcrum of this team. He had the strongest pedigree growing up, courtesy of his national team coach father, and has developed into the best and most important player on the U.S. team. Bradley is 26, and is ready to become the latest in a string of American midfielders to patrol the center of the pitch for multiple World Cups. He doesn’t get credit for being as creative as iconic players like Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, but he might be more important to this team’s success than they ever were to theirs.
After quietly shining in South Africa, he blossomed under Klinsmann, free from the added pressure of being the coach’s kid. Bradley has grown more vocal with the press, embraced a new leadership role with the side, and grown as a player. His passing ability keys the team’s attack, while his relentless running solidifies its defense. The midfielder will be there in Brazil, and he’ll be there in Russia with a new group surrounding him, a 23-man roster more talented than whatever Klinsmann brings this summer.
In 2002, I spent the better part of three weeks with three friends, sleeping during the day and watching the World Cup, taking place in South Korea and Japan, during the middle of the night. When the U.S. beat Mexico to reach the quarterfinals, we stormed out into the early-morning Rhode Island light, ready to celebrate, or riot, or something. Whatever soccer fans do. Except we were completely alone. We sat on the grass, delirious with excitement and lack of sleep, talking about Donovan’s game-clinching goal in the 65th minute, a bunch of 20-year-olds reliving the biggest moment of another 20-year-old’s life, one that came half a world away. The U.S. would lose to Germany, but it all felt like a victory. We were hooked.
Twelve years later, here we are again, with matches on the docket against 2002 foes Germany and Portugal, as well as 2006 and 2010 tormentor Ghana. This World Cup is going to be a strange one for the U.S. Despite being a team full of veterans, it’s an unsettled group, especially at center back, where two of Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron, and Clarence Goodson will make up the most inexperienced duo to start a World Cup since 1990.
This is a transition time, a huge moment for the American team, two years into a six-year plan that Klinsmann hopes will dictate the next few decades. Anything could happen in Brazil. Quite honestly, you could tell me the U.S. will suffer three straight 3-0 losses and I would buy it, just as easily as I would believe they’ll reach the second round.
It’s going to be even stranger for the fans. It’s the closing chapter of the Donovan- Dempsey-Howard run, a trio that’s embodied the American squad as we — the broad generation defined by the proliferation of high-speed Internet access, the rise of MLS, and increasing television coverage from Europe — grew up. American soccer will look different by the time we get to Russia, never returning to its roots. It will be bigger, better, more talented, more competitive, and more dangerous. It’s a path any fan should want the U.S. to follow.
But how about one last tournament for old times’ sake, yeah?